SOLAR DYE


It starts with a gathering: deadheaded blooms, freshly unfurled petals, bright green leaves. Dyer’s Coreopsis, Queen Anne’s Lace, Rudbeckia. My garden shears make quick work of the task, collecting flowers as I move throughout the yard, dropping them into clear glass mason jars, creating a menagerie of color. Sacred geometry all a tumble as the flowers pile in on one another. 


Before capping the jars, I give the flower’s previous residents some time to move on; spiders and insects crawl up and out, looking for new digs. This time of year, there are plenty.

I find a sunny spot outside on the deck to place the jars and their precious cargo. I fill each jar with water, cap tightly, and shake. And then I let the sun work its magic. I watch, and wait a day for the color to develop.

The heat created allows for the release of color compounds found in the plant material, if they are present. Not all plants will produce color; and not all color, once produced, is permanent. Plants dyes that do not need a mordant to bond with fiber are known as substantive dyes. Dyes that require a mordant are adjective dyes - their color will fade if no mordant is used. Mordanting is the first step in the dyeing process - it allows the dye to bite into the fiber, creating a more permanent color. Alum is the most widely used mordant, along with other minerals like copper and iron. Tannins from plants offer more natural alternatives - including those found in black walnuts and iron. Dyeing with these plants first is also considered a mordanting process.

Even still, not all plants contain color that can be permanently captured. Referred to as ‘fugitive’, this color is fleeting, revealing its initial self, only to fade and change over time.

This is where alchemy meets experimentation.

Meanwhile, I hunt through closets and drawers for t-shirts and tea towels and napkins to mordant, and then pop in the jars.

After leaving the flowers and leaves to soak in the sun for a day, I add the prepped fabric, removing plant material to make room, if needed.

I wait a few days.
The sun makes a few rounds.
And then, the reveal: I uncap the lids and slowly begin the messy task of pulling everything out of the jars. The flowers and leaves can be used again for another round of dyeing, or dried and saved for creating color later on.

I rinse the remaining petals and leaves from my newly transformed laundry pile, and marvel at the deft hands of the sun.

general mordant instructions:
-Fill a bucket with enough water to cover fabric.
-Wearing gloves and a mask, add alum (5 - 10% to weight of fiber) to a cup.
-Slowly pour one cup of boiling water to the alum and stir until fully dissolved.
-Pour the alum solution into the bucket and stir thoroughly.
-Add fabric and stir.
-Soak for 45 minutes, stirring often. Remove and rinse. (Reuse your alum bath multiple times; cover with an airtight lid and store. Or, water your acid-loving plants with it.)